In the debate on how to get fit most efficiently, it can be tough to separate hype from reality. A famous debate involves isometric vs. isotonic exercise. Which is better for strength building or muscle growth? Which works fastest?
Isometric exercises tend to be static and better for gentle muscle development, while isotonic exercises target more muscle groups with greater intensity and more growth. Both can be helpful in different contexts, but care should be used to match workout intensity with your fitness and health level.
Keep reading to learn more about isometric vs. isotonic exercises, how they differ, and which is better for your fitness goals.
Isometric Vs. Isotonic: What’s The Difference?
Isometric exercises tend to involve holding a specific position for longer periods. This keeps you static, like a board or a statue, for a few minutes at a time. This keeps the muscles taught or tense for longer spans (with or without the use of weights) and can be a great way to slowly build up muscle endurance and strength.
Isometric exercises are gentler on the body and can be great for long-term strengthening and greater endurance. They’re also much easier on those with arthritis or joint pain and can be suitable for strengthening specific muscles weakened by illness or aging.
Isotonic exercises, on the other hand, force muscles to expand and contract and involve quite a bit of joint movements, especially repetitive ones. Push-ups, pull-ups, and repetitive lifting are all forms of isotonic exercises. These tend to work out more muscle groups at once and burn quite a few calories in the process.
They’re ideal for most people at any stage in their fitness journey and tend to build both strength and mass. They’re tougher on the body but can yield quicker results.
Are Muscle Growth and Muscle Strength the Same?
It’s important to note that muscle strength and muscle mass are not the same thing. A very wiry person may have surprisingly strong muscles while remaining lean-looking. Muscle strength relates to how much you can lift, as well as simpler things like day-to-day coordination, fitness, and good balance.
Muscle growth, on the other hand, focuses more on aesthetics. How do you look? How big do your muscles seem to be visually? Bodybuilders often seek muscle growth, while muscle strength is pursued by athletes of all types seeking to increase endurance and stamina.
These two categories often overlap but are not the same. Larger muscles are a good general indicator of increased strength and strength training tends to increase muscle mass. At the same time, athletes may be seeking to strengthen muscles for better coordination, longer distance jumping, or more speed as opposed to larger-looking pectorals and biceps.
So, while these two criteria often overlap with or lead to one another, your goals may lean more towards one outcome for varying reasons, especially if you’re more interested in aesthetic gains or looking tougher.
So, let’s dive into the two exercise styles. What about isometric exercise? Is this an effective and fast way to get stronger and bulk up?
How Can Isometric Exercise Build Strength?
Isometric exercises keep your joints still but your muscles in a held position. This can include the joints being bent once to get into position (such as bending a knee or an elbow), but then the muscles get to work holding that position, and the joints are at rest.
Yoga can be thought of as a form of isometric exercise. The limbs are placed into position for each asana, and then that pose is held for a while. This is helpful for gradually and gently increasing muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance and for improving blood flow.
Granted, these exercises are not very intense, but they will slowly yet surely lead to stronger limbs, a stronger core, and better balance. There will not be quick gains on isometrics alone, and the increases in strength won’t necessarily get you ready for the NFL. They’re excellent for limb strength, core strength, balance, and improving mobility, however.
What about muscle growth? Will you notice significant gains in muscle mass with isometric exercise?
Will Isometric Exercise Grow Muscles?
While isometric routines can gradually improve muscle strength, you won’t notice tremendous increases in bulk with isometric alone. A good example of the body type that daily isometric exercise produces would be a healthy yoga practitioner.
Men and women with this body type tend to be lean and moderately muscular, but not ripped. You’re more likely to notice their slim body type before their muscles, as isometric routines tend to stretch the spine and the muscles as opposed to encouraging fast bulking.
So, the muscle gains with isometric routines will be less noticeable, especially if these exercises are done by themselves. What about isotonic exercise? Can you build strength and muscle mass more readily with repetitive motions?
Does Isotonic Exercise Build Strength?
Isotonic exercise, involving repetitive lifting, squats, or curls, tends to build strength quite well. In addition, many day-to-day activities you find yourself doing can technically be described as isotonic.
- Bending or leaning as you vacuum
- Unloading and putting away groceries
- Walking or biking
- Washing dishes by hand
- Cleaning and polishing the bathroom sink
While many of these may not sound glamorous, they all involve repetitive joint movements, motion, and muscles going to work. These are low-impact isotonic exercises, and the more intense gym exercises you may be used to are also excellent ways to build strength.
Isotonic exercises tend to involve multiple muscle groups and stretch the spine. These exercises also work with your skeletal system to increase bone strength, leading to better coordination and overall fitness, especially as one ages.
These are fantastic ways to build the strength of multiple muscle systems as well as get a whole-body workout. This is especially true at the gym, where equipment, weights, and fitness routines can all get you moving, keep your joints flexing, and work several key muscle groups at once. Because these exercises are tougher on the body and repetitive, you’re likely to see your strength increase faster than with isometrics alone.
You’ll sweat more, and your metabolism and endurance will also increase with isotonic exercises. They’re an excellent way for athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts to get stronger, quicker.
Isotonic Exercise Can Build Muscle Mass
Another benefit of isotonic exercise is its tendency to increase the size of muscle tissue. The intense, repetitive motions will tend to stress muscle fibers, leading to inflammation and a signal to your body that this muscle needs more tissue. More muscle tissue means more muscle mass, and these repetitive and intense exercises are perfect for building not only multi-system strength but muscle size, as well.
The biggest bodybuilders don’t just live healthy lives; they also pump quite a bit of iron. These upper and lower body workouts involve more muscle groups, and better gains across the core, arms, and legs. You’re under more physical stress, but this stress kicks the body into high gear, making sure your muscle bulk can handle everything you’re throwing at it.
Even better, isotonic exercises can increase in intensity as your muscles grow accustomed to each exercise. Weights can increase, or the number of curls you do can increase, too. In contrast, isometric exercise is a bit more stable. You may be able to hold poses for longer (which is great!), but there’s not as much modification or intensification of the basic exercises.
Isotonic has more potential for long-term growth and physical challenge and a better chance for growing muscle mass and more professional-level strength over time.
Both Exercise Styles Can Balance Each other Out
While isometric exercises tend to be gentler and lead to a very gradual increase in strength, they can also be paired with isotonic exercises to increase balance, stability, spinal strength, as well as mass and endurance.
For example, isometric exercises can be a fantastic and safe way to warm up before a workout or wind down after one. The Plank, a classic isometric move, can help stretch your arms and core in preparation for lifting. It can also help lower blood pressure, and calm the body down after an intense gym session.
Isotonic exercises can be used for faster gains, maximum caloric burn, weight loss, and bulking while isometric exercises can become a part of your slower-paced wellness routine, along with time spent in nature, sleeping well, and taking care of your mental health and diet.
Isometrics are also more likely to benefit you later in life, so it’s a good idea to become familiar with them and work them into your routine before you start aging. There may come a time when lifting hundreds of pounds is just not possible for you anymore, but gentle balancing and strength exercises without a lot of joint movement might be perfect, and capable of prolonging health and independence for longer.
Risks With Isometric and Isotonic Exercises Exist
As with all forms of exercise, there are some things to consider and some risks to weigh with both types of exercise. While isometric exercises are generally safe and gentle, you should feel free to modify them if they’re proving too difficult, especially if you’re using these exercises as an older adult or as a method of recovery from an injury.
If you’re a heart patient, have high blood pressure, balance issues, anemia, or fatigue, talk with your doctor before trying isotonic exercise. Your doctor may recommend a helpful yet less rigorous routine that works for your health level, age, and physical limits. Pregnant women should also avoid intense isotonic exercise, but may benefit from gentler isometric routines as a way to stay fit and reduce back pain while expecting.
Isotonic exercises can also hit hard if you do too much, too fast. Allow your body to get used to the routine, push forward at a pace that works for you, and don’t exhaust yourself in a quest for fast gains. All genuine health takes time, and the best approach with isotonic exercise is to keep at it, gently push your limits, and balance out your routine with a healthy lifestyle.
Remember to rest as well as work out, and take care of every part of your life in your quest for better health.
What’s The Best Way to Gain Both Strength and Muscle Mass?
So, we’ve determined that while isometric exercise can gently increase endurance and strengthen muscles, it’s not the best route for fast gains, visible muscles, or Olympic stamina. Isotonic exercise would work better for those, and balancing the two methods out during a routine can allow your body to get ready for intense exercise as well as recover from it faster.
But beyond exercise styles, how should you be living to boost strength and muscle? Are there life hacks for better gains?
Gaining more strength and mass quickly can also depend on how you fuel your body. Diets rich in fatty fish, nuts, whole grains, and leafy greens tend to benefit from exercise more readily, and these foods can also boost testosterone levels and encourage muscle growth.
Getting a good night’s sleep, reducing stress, gentle exercise like walking or biking, and being in nature can help calibrate the body and mind, making workouts more effective, too.
It’s also important to give your body time to rest. Let your muscles cool down, take at least one day off from the gym per week, and be patient with yourself. The biggest gains in strength and muscle bulk come with time, but as long as you balance a consistent exercise routine with healthy living, you’ll see progress.
Isometric exercise involves holding poses without joint movement to increase strength, flexibility, and bone density over time. Yoga is an excellent example of this type of exercise. Isotonic exercise, on the other hand, uses repetitive motions and frequent joint flexing to build strength and endurance. Curls, sit-ups, and pumping iron are all examples.
Isotonic exercise is better at producing visible and faster gains in strength and muscle mass, though isometric exercises can be helpful for warming up, cooling down, and generally improving balance and stability.
As with all exercise routines, isotonic exercise is more effective when combined with a healthy diet of whole foods, plenty of sleep, and a less stressful lifestyle. You’ll also want to check with your doctor to make sure that these exercises are safe for you and modify them if your physical health requires it.
Gary David is the founder and CEO of CrazyMass, one of the nation’s leading supplement companies. Before starting CrazyMass in 2006, Gary was a bodybuilder and personal trainer for several gyms throughout Northwest Michigan, helping clients meet their fitness goals. Gary happily worked in this profession for over 15 years. He saw that most weight gaining products to increase muscle were made with ingredients that were dangerous or of poor quality. He knew there was a safer and healthier way to do this, so he created a special blend of herbs, amino acids, and nutrients to help bodybuilders slim down and gain muscle.
Although Gary no longer participates in bodybuilding competitions, he continues to be involved in the community, helping others prep for shows and attending events where he can advertise CrazyMass products. When Gary isn’t working long hours, he likes to spend his time working out at the gym, boating on Lake Michigan, traveling the trails around Northern Michigan by four-wheeler, and spending time with his family. He also loves to take a yearly trip to Europe with his wife and children.